Hijinks on Hold

Having checked (and double checked) that all of the wine is now completely dry, we spent some time storing it away so it’s ready to start the period of ageing before we bottle it. And it is just as well that the fermentations are absolutely complete, as the weather has turned noticeably cooler. Which, if we are being honest, is what is supposed to happen in England. If you are fortunate enough to share our little island, you will have no doubt noticed the icy roads, people wearing hats and coats and the fact that it’s the end of November. You may well also have noted that it tends to get cold at approximately this time every year. And as if to confirm that we stand at the precipice of winter, all television weather people are pretending that this is a huge surprise, before reminding you not to do rally driving on ice or go around wearing sandals and a beach towel.

If you weren’t with us last week, the fermentations have a nasty habit of stopping if the ambient temperature drops too low and, while we are able to negate the damaging effects of a fermentation that is too warm by moving the wine to smaller tanks, warming it up is a little more tricky. Until we buy a heat exchanger. At that point it will just be a case of putting diesel in the generator and switching it on and telling it what temperature you want your wine to be and watching the perfectly controlled fermentations go through in record time, while recalling the fun that we have had doing this in the past and wondering why we didn’t do it sooner. As an added bonus, the cold weather is doing a wonderful job of cold stabilising the wine nice and early this year.

Cold stabilising the wine was another consideration for us when we were delaying the purchase of our heat exchanger, because wine has this nasty habit of forming and depositing little tartrate crystals on the bottom of its container when it gets really cold. If this happens in the winery, all well and good (you can force this to happen with a heat exchanger), you remove the wine from the tank and leave the crystals behind. The crystals are usually welded to the side of the tank so fiercely that it takes a pressure washer and a mug (that’d be me then) to climb into the tank to blast them off. But the important thing is that the wine is no longer capable of producing more of them, so we may refer to it as cold stable.

Tartrate crystals are clear – so are almost invisible in wine – and have no detrimental impact on the quality of it, but they also look a bit like glass in white wine to the uninitiated. And oddly enough, people tend to stop drinking wine that they suspect has glass in it and start shaking their fists and instigating legal action, so it’s best to make sure that there aren’t any in the wine. And this year this has all happened and the tanks are clean before Christmas! So I can get on with looking forward to Christmas, fawning over John Lewis adverts and trying to work out what Black Friday is.

I promised you hilarious renewable energy related hijinks and to meticulously document the sequence of events that will inevitably lead to Lucy kicking me out and my moving into our in no way roadworthy Toyota Hilux; but I have failed. Which is to say that the company I bought it from failed to deliver it. Because they had no record of our order, other than the largish lump of cash that we had beamed into their bank account. Now, in a sensible and grown up person this would have started a stream of consciousness that ended with “This seems like a useless company, I shall not buy anything from them”. Unfortunately, when it comes to renewable energy, I immediately turn into an excited child as we are so enthusiastic about it. This is not because I secretly wish to have hair, so that I may go about wearing it in unspeakably filthy dreadlocks and perform injudicious raids on oil platforms, it’s because there is something magical about it.

From the first time that we plugged a tiny little solar panel into the battery that was running the electric fence, and saw on the multimeter that there was power topping that battery up, from nowhere, I was well and truly hooked. Consigning me to a lifetime of watching wind turbines periodically smash themselves to atoms and Lucy to a lifetime of disapproving looks every time that she turns her hair drier on. Which reminds me, we also bought some house batteries this week that should be arriving any time, which should even be able to run Lucy’s hair iron things. More on this next week.

I digress. The wind turbine eventually arrived yesterday missing two vital parts. One to hold it on the top of the scaffolding pole that passes for a tower and a box full of electrical tomfoolery to turn its special brand of power into something that the batteries can use. What is quickly turning into our least favourite company have promised to send along the missing parts next week; so presumably we will be hijinking then.

Vintage Report 2013

Firstly, apologies if the website looks a little odd, I’ve been piecing it back together from cached copies on the internet after an injudicious click obliterated all traces of it from our server and our temperamental laptop. Now read on…

Having fought my way back into the inner workings of the blog from two weeks ago, I noticed that I promised to keep you up to date with what we were doing in the winery last week. I was miles ahead of the game and just about to send the completed work off to my editor (that’d by Lucy), when the laptop decided to pop off this mortal coil and took the blog and everything else with it (this happened before I trashed the website). What’s more, it turns out that my sub-photographic memory has taken an epic nose dive since we started making wine, so recalling all the passwords that it has been helpfully remembering for me for years and where everything is online has proven very entertaining indeed. And if that weren’t enough fun, trying to do all that while shepherding a couple of kids (who are currently attempting to kill us with a litany of diseases) and not teach them any new words or smash my newly repaired* computer into a thousand pieces added to our unbridled joy and inability to publish last week.

*That’s right, it wasn’t even good enough to break properly so I could go out and buy a shiny new one. Naturally enough, this didn’t stop me unwrapping the old “This will almost certainly happen again at any time if we don’t buy another one immediately” argument. The speed with which Lucy demolished my entreaty doesn’t augur well for the children when they are demanding the entire contents of the toy department for Christmas.

I digress. Now that we are publishing a week later, all of the wine has made it through the fermentation process and is sat in tanks awaiting some enthusiastic evaluation (tasting) so that we can start to make some firm decisions as to what to do with it before we bottle it. This is always a fun time of year as it means that the ravages of the season are over, the grapes are squished and their juice is fermented. And if anything is going to go wrong with your wine, during fermentation is the time that it is most likely to happen, so the pressure is off in the winery a little.

And guess what? So far so good. In fact, as we have had a bit of a Goldilocks autumn this year, the fermentations have gone through more smoothly than ever. The ambient temperature shouldn’t make a blind bit of difference as under normal circumstances we would have bought the heat exchanger than we promised the winery last year. But the circumstances were not normal this year. We had a sneaking suspicion that the harvest would be less than stellar, so knew that the fermentations were unlikely to get too hot (alcoholic fermentation is exothermic, so large tanks that are full of wine get hot, this causes lots of problems) so didn’t invest in a heat exchanger this year. It hasn’t escaped our attention that you can run the exchanger backwards and warm up your fermentation if it’s freezing cold outside, but I thought that we could breathe heavily on the tanks or set fire to the winery or something to get them going instead.

So what did we do with our underwhelming harvest? Lots of things. The German grapes that we removed first (Siegerrebe, Schonberger and Bacchus for the record) have been finished wine for the best part of a month now and are really starting to taste like it: the nose is magic and a month or two in the bottle should really finish it off nicely. The Chardonnay is the usual glass full of enormousness, even now, just after fermentation. While it’s still a little raw – it only finished fermenting last week – the ripeness of this year’s vintage is really starting to show through. There are some really excellent fruit flavours and just a hint of the single oak stave (one of the constituent parts of a barrel) that we added at the start of the fermentation. Now all that remains is a not inconsiderable amount of tasting to decide what we do with the whites.

It has crossed both of our minds before that it might be a good idea to blend the two wines as they are likely to compliment each other well – assuming that the Chardonnay doesn’t trample all over the rather more delicate Corbinian. Once they have both settled down a little, we’ll start literally forcing people to sit down and drink the blended wine and tell us whether they think that we should be mixing the two of them together. Assuming that the answer is affirmative, we’ll get on and blend them and sweeten the lot a little. Assuming that there is any left for us to blend.

The rosé is much more straightforward. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. Of the reds, we picked a reasonable amount of Pinot Noir and just a little Pinot Meunier. Until we had taken the time to stand back and take a look at how much we had, our intention was to split it in half and make red Pinot Noir from one half and a Pinot Noir/Meunier blend of rosé from the other. As the harvest was on the small side, the pragmatic approach was to make one or the other. It wasn’t quite a toss of coin that lead us to making the rosé, but it wasn’t far off. We find making the red more rewarding, but the rosé is unbelievably easy to sell (most of it goes to my mother) so market forces made our decision for us in the end. And the super-ripe red grapes have made an absolutely cracking strawberries and cream concoction in a fantastic bright pink colour. We’ll be sweetening the rosé too, but not blending it with any white wine at all for any reason; because that’s illegal.

We may be attempting to erect a new wind turbine next week, which promises to be a Laurel and Hardy style comedy of errors – we had two a couple of years ago and ran one into the other one last time that we put turbines up – so I’ll make absolutely sure that I get a blog out next week if I haven’t killed the laptop by then. Oh, and we are moving to weekly Friday editions because Fridays are great. And it’s more convenient. But mostly because Fridays are great.

Project Harvest, Go!

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If the time spent picking grapes in the vineyard and making wine last week weren’t enough to tell us that harvest is over and done with, one need only look at the apocalyptic scenes on the news (or maybe just take a look out of the window if your power lines have been blown over and the television doesn’t work) to work out that harvest is over and done with and that winter is on the way.

This time of year is always one of mixed emotions. It’s usually a big relief to get the grapes into the relative safety of the winery (we obviously still retain the right to make a mess of them while wearing our winemaker hats) away from the legion of diseases and creatures that would just love to make a mess of them. It’s usually also lovely at this point to be able to start ignoring the weather forecast again, but as it’s headline news at the moment, no such luck this year. Set against the unbridled joy at the prospect of the occasional weekend off and not having to worry about the vines is the inevitable downturn in the weather and the prospect of six months wrapped up in water proof clothing slipping around in the mud.

And it’s all happening so quickly this year! It was only yesterday that I was very nearly rolling the pick up into the hedgerow after sliding down a hill in the mud, and today there is garden furniture rolling past the window* on account of the Storm of the CenturyTM.

*Because I am wonderfully efficient, I wrote this the day before the Storm of the CenturyTM, convinced from the news stories that there would be cows, tractors and people cartwheeling past the house. In reality, the litany of destruction wrought by last night’s storm includes one vine guard blown off a tree in the garden and not much else.

And what of the harvest? Although not even nearly on the scale of last year’s total loss, it was a little disappointing again. We aren’t entirely sure what has gone wrong this year. The start of the season was extra cold, and the vines certainly didn’t start growing until about six weeks late, but summer was sufficiently warm to ensure that flowering was successful and the vines were able to ripen their grapes. We also know that all the rain in 2012 will have reduced the number of the vines’ potential flowers, it might also have removed some of the goodness from the soil and deposited it in the river at the bottom of our hill. There was also a little downy mildew last year, well, quite a bit by the close of business, and the weaker vines roughly correlate with where the grapes were scarce this year. Whatever the case, we have our tame agronomist on the case and we hope that he will be providing us with answers to ensure that were are a lot busier with the next harvest than we were this year.

And do you know what we do with a house full of willing workers for a week when there isn’t an awful lot of picking to do? Projects! We harvested the grapes on the drier days of the week in just under two days and although the fruit was a little thin on the ground, the grapes that we did have were excellent. I’m going to tell you all about what we did – and continue to to – with them next week. There is a little too much to ram into one entry this week, so I’m going to split it to ensure that you are all still conscious when you finish reading.

We were hoping to finish the second coat of varnish on the back side of the house that has been waiting since last year, but the weather wasn’t exactly conducive, so we decided to do boldly attempt to rescue a shed from the undergrowth behind the winery. And not since the raising of Lazarus has a hope so forlorn magically risen from the ashes, phoenix like to stand totemic as the mother of all mixed metaphors. For a spot of context, this is the same shed that was mostly flattened by a foot of snow that we had in 2011 and has been held up by a motorcycle that a friend left here a couple of years ago ever since. Lesser people would go out and buy a new shed, and I thought that we were going to be amongst their number when five of us dug it out of its resting place and moved it to its new home in front of the winery. The trip was very interesting indeed, more than once I thought that it would fall to pieces in transit, but when it arrived it was pretty much in tact.

As it is the sort of shed that doesn’t have a floor (the discount sort), it was suggested by one of our engineering visitors that we make one before the land underneath it turned into soup over winter. We stood around discussing it for a while and decided that we could make a mockery of the winter mud if the shed was raised up above it. It’s now sort of on stilts. And once we had laid some floorboards, it’s conversion from home for mice to executive chemical store and tool shed was complete. We even had time to knock together a work bench and some shelving, so all of my tools are in one place and not scattered around the land and winery. Which promises to be an enormous time saver for me as I spend at least a dozen hours a week looking for tools and being chastised for not looking after them by Lucy. It still brings a tear to my eye when I see all those rusted and knackered little fellows all in once place.

And if you were to sit on the deck that we built when we were not picking grapes last year, would you fall off the end of it if you had a gin and tonic too many (this is a very real prospect if you spend more than five minutes here)? Absolutely not! Your over indulgence would be completely covered by our amazing safety rail. And while you are there you can also admire our garden gate that is hung from its newly concreted post and actually opens and closes and everything. We even had time to nail a bit of wood along the bottom of it to prevent the dogs from climbing under it and irritating the people down the road in their exclusive holiday homes. Okay, so it’s not a bumper harvest, but this is absolutely the next best thing.